Around the same time that the very first, and let’s be honest, somewhat primitive NZ Musician magazine rolled off the press 25 years ago, a unique, uncompromising and famously loud band began plying their trade under the rather intriguing name of Nelsh Bailter Space. That’s a mighty long band career right there, but you need to go further back into the mists of time to trace the real origins of these veteran noise-scape artisans, as Mark Bell reveals following a long distance phone conversation with Bailterspace guitarist Alister Parker.
The year is 1980 and I was cutting my musical teeth in a twitchy five-piece post-punk band called the Whizz Kids. We’d scored a gig at the prestigious Hillsborough Tavern in Christchurch, on the strength of having been fired from three dates of our South Island tour for not playing rock’n’roll or blues, or anything remotely similar.
Promoter Jim Wilson had caught wind of this and decided he just had to have us. What a guy! Anyhow, Jim had organised a support band for the evening, a brand new outfit called the Gordons, and we stuck around after soundcheck to have a listen. I remember being most impressed by the sight of them wheeling in a Marshall stack, a rare and beautiful thing in those days. When they started up their three pronged aural assault, let me tell you it was just insane, a total OMG moment of fear and exhilaration.
They only had four songs in their repertoire at the time, but that was clearly no obstacle to a band that has gone on to make a career out of flying by the seat of their pants. Every building block and genetic strand of their oeuvre was already in place from day one – and what we’ve seen since has been a process of gradual refinement rather than wholesale change. But hey, if it ain’t broke…
Fast forward to the present day and I’m a tad nervous about my impending phoner to New York with guitarist/vocalist Alister Parker. In several encounters with the man over the years since the Hillsborough I’d found him to be a somewhat aloof and impenetrable enigma – a description that I would suggest could also be applied to their music, to a degree.
The band have an acknowledged dislike of interviews, and with deadline rapidly approaching Parker has proven rather difficult to pin down. When I finally make the connection he asks me to wait for what feels like eternity, while mysterious American-accented conversations swirl around in the background.
When he does eventually come online I’m not greatly encouraged by the first words out of his mouth.
“Thanks for giving us a call. I do 20 minute interviews you know, I think that kind’a wraps it up.”
Fair enough I suppose, but really? As it turns out he’s got plenty to say about their latest New York-recorded studio offering ‘Trinine’ (pronounced ‘try nine’) and my full quiver of questions doesn’t appear in danger of expiring from diffident or monosyllabic answers. In fact the timer on my recorder eventually ticks over to an air-punching 40 minutes – a small but significant victory.
I get things rolling by suggesting that the Bailterspace creative process, as a real-time interactive construct (they jam a lot), would by definition require all three members (Parker, bassist John Halvorsen and drummer/percussionist/sample operator Brent McLachlan) to be simultaneously present in the studio. And as that fact precludes the fashionable practice of file-sharing, and given that Parker and McLachlan are the only New York-based members (they’ve mostly lived outside NZ since 1989), how do they make it happen?
“Yeah, John now lives in Wellington, New Zealand,” he adds a little unnecessarily. “So recently we managed to, you know, fly everyone to the same destination and do some shows and that was really good. But that’s always been the way we’ve done it anyway, ‘cause people kind of drift off into their own thing and then an opportunity comes up. It’s not like we share an apartment or anything.
“But we did really start off recording (live to tape) on a 24-track medium and I think we’ve kept that kind of capability pretty intact.”
Given the spontaneous nature of their creative process, I ask whether there’s much divergence between the various takes of each track?
“Well, we normally do things in phases,” Parker explains. “Like we could get phase 1,2,3,4,5 of an idea or something that we’ve all brought together and like maybe jammed with, and then we’ll just launch into a recording of that idea. But you know, oftentimes it’s either the first or the last one that’s the best, and quite often the first one.
“(It may not be) as well defined as the last recording that we made but it just has more of the magic, more of the spontaneity that makes it more appealing to all three of us. So we’ll end up going with that and working with that towards the final song, rather than going with something that’s good but just doesn’t have that extra mystery.
“So that’s always been the way – over-defined things are just over-defined and somehow your imagination, it needs to have an area where you’re relying on spontaneous events rather than some pre-defined, pre-conceptualised replay.”
‘Trinine’ exhibits many of the hallmarks of a classic Bailterspace record, the propulsive and un-flashy drumming, Halvorsen’s massive, roaming, red-lining basslines and of course Parker’s monolithic, drone-heavy, de-tuned guitar. His talent for melody is largely absent this time around though, the lyrics minimal and well buried in the mix, so I make the observation that the songs on this album aren’t really songs at all, at least not in the conventional verse/chorus sense, but Parker disagrees.
“I think we were working with a new soundscape and we decided to treat it as such, but I do really feel like all of those are songs. There is no particular formula or formulae, and so, you know, it’s there if you want to hear it actually. These actually have incredible song structure, it just may be slightly less obvious.”
It’s true that ‘Trinine’ is an album you don’t necessarily ‘get’ on the first listen – there are patterns and layers, harmonic interplay and waves of intensity, in short a great deal of complexity that a superficial once-over will never grasp. Their music is like an abstract painting, not a still life or landscape where everything is laid out for instant gratification.
Now nine albums in to a career punctuated by lengthy sabbaticals, Bailterspace are still boldly going where conventional bands fear to tread, carving out their sometimes atmospheric, often brutal soundscapes without the aid of anything like a pre-arranged outcome. It’s this essence of mystery and discovery that continues to fuel their creative drive and perhaps goes a long way towards explaining how a band can make uncompromising music together for over 25 years.
And since he’s been so accommodating and talkative, it’s only fair that Alister Parker should have the last word, as he recounts an idea suggested by a friend of his that seems to beautifully and succinctly capture the Bailterspace modus operandi.
“It’s like three torrents of water coming together and making something, and then away it goes and you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’ve got to be a bit ready for it man!”